Life lesson 1 How to prepare a conference talk – living and learning

I’m on the train heading home after the wonderful Bradford home birth conference organised by University of Bradford Midwifery Society.   It’s been a great day with a combination of established speakers and fresh new voices. This was an occasion when I feel I didn’t get my talk quite right. So, I’m reflecting now on what I’ve learned over 25 years of public speaking but didn’t fully put into practice today. And I’ll share a few tips with you, based on these thoughts. I’ll finish up with a few notes on my preparation for today and I’ll write a separate blog summary of intended (or useful?) messages for today’s delegates.

Preparing a conference talk

Study the programme and be clear what contribution you and others are being asked to make – You may well need to check with the organisers what they are looking for and want to avoid. It may make good sense to check with other speakers what they will be covering. It doesn’t matter if there is some overlap as it can help to familiarise people with key material, but it may help you prioritise.

Make a plan and identify two or three key messages – Ask yourself as you develop the talk, Are the points clear? Are they well made? It’s entirely up to you how much you flag up in a formal introduction what your talk will cover, but it’s probably helpful to summarise the key messages before you finish.

Less is more – know how many minutes to you have been allocated to speak. Work out, and check with the organisers, how long you will speak for and how long you will allocate for questions and discussion with the delegates.

Connect with the delegates – interactive communication is better than a monologue. Share something of yourself. It might be something personal about your life or career, or a story about a particular insight or favourite quotation and why it means a lot to you. Today, Mary Nolan, shared a quote from a 17th century midwife and read the quote showing us how the rhythm reflected the rhythm of labour and contractions that come and then pass. If you give a little of yourself, the delegates will give back. Ask some questions as you go, and make sure to allow time at the end for discussion. Unless you know the perspectives, interests and concerns of those you’re talking to, you may not give them what they really want to know or to explore.

Find your own voice – what are you and your contribution all about? Are you an educator or teacher? Are you a practitioner sharing your practice? Are you a lobbyist? Are you there to tell your own story, perhaps as a service user?  Are you a representative of women, there to communicate a range of experiences or concerns? Maybe you’ve been invited to provide an objective set of information impartially? How much do you want to influence, how much to inform? How much to entertain? How much do you want people to question their own thinking and behaviour? Do you want to stir up an emotional reaction?

Make the case – One of the things we do as part of NCT Voices training for service user representatives on maternity services liaison committees (MSLCs) is encourage them to identify a change they want to see realised and make the case for change. Why is it important? Who would benefit and how? What do local women and families say? What formal evidence is there? What could we do differently? Would it be cost-effective? These kinds of questions might enable you to plan your talk, depending on its purpose.

Avoid the pitfalls presenting evidence – I’ll stick to a few points here, as a whole text book could be written on this alone.

  • If presenting quantitative findings, make sure you know what all the numbers relate to and what they mean. If you don’t know, ask someone who does. Many colleagues and contacts will help a friend willingly or support a new contact who asks for help.
  • Don’t go into more detail than necessary just because you find the data fascinating. Think about your key points and what is mission-critical. Think about what the audience needs to know. Let them know if there a place they can look up the detail afterwards.
  • Don’t feel that you have to do all the work. Introduce a few ideas and maybe encourage people to check-out a key review, or audit report.
  • It’s not acceptable to make claims, e.g. about cause and effect, and not cite a reference.
  • Avoid jargon. Make sure to use language most of the audience will understand.
  • Don’t assume much prior knowledge. It is important to be inclusive, so explain concepts briefly to carry as many people with you as possible.
  • Make sure you state the more important points. If you are very familiar with something, you may overlook to mention key points of methodology that sets a study apart.
  • Don’t read out every number shown on a slide. Often the trends can be seen at a glance and the detail can be followed up by those who need it. Add a source for everything, and a date of publication. That shows you know your stuff and others can fact-check if they want to.

Experiment with humour – Any speaker who can make an audience laugh will feel good and get a great reception. Some people and some subjects lend themselves better to laughs than others, which is why I say experiment. What it takes is being relaxed and appearing spontaneous. Practise spontaneity at home. If it’s not your thing, or you can’t pull it off, forget it. Don’t be smug. People who laugh at their own jokes more than the audience do, don’t make a good impression. The idea is to be sincere and likeable; the witty person others want to know. The more you relax and manage to be yourself, the more likely you are to succeed with the humour thing.

Practice giving your talk out loud – This will demonstrate how long it’s going to take. If you spend a few seconds longer on each slide than anticipated, the talk will over-run. Practice will enable you to hone the vital points to make and ditch the rest. You don’t need to repeat yourself. Work out how to be succinct and to segue fluently on to the next point or following slide. In my experience, practice makes perfect. Each run through tends to show where some minor adjustment can be made. Your aim is to be fluent and have oomph. Have you make our key points clearly? Do you need to shift the focus or emphasis?

Ask a friend for feedback – It can be galling to take tips after you have worked hard to come up with something profound and original, but better to bomb with one friend than with a roomful of blank faces at the event. Joking aside, it’s more about polishing so that the whole shines brightly and leaves the audience wanting more.

My performance today

Well, I broke a fair few of my rules. I should have done more research on the other speakers and the needs of the delegates. The title I had been given was Putting evidence into practice and promoting choice.  I changed my talk at the last minute, shifting the emphasis too far towards sharing the evidence and doing too little on ‘into practice’. I didn’t do a full run through because of the late changes. I didn’t interact enough or leave time for discussion. Thankfully, two lovely midwives did talk with me at the tea break abut questions they had, which gives me useful ideas. Not my best day at the office, though it could have been worse. See my linked blog on Home birth: putting evidence into practice and promoting choice.

The NHS Constitution & The Berwick Report: service user involvement & co-design

What a fabulous introduction to The NHS Constitution AND how it can be applied in maternity services user engagement and involvement #MSLC – a must read!

Birth Talk

Notes for MSLC Members & Maternity Commissioners The NHS Constitution, and the 160-page Handbook, that accompanies it are interesting & exciting documents. Worth a browse if you are interes…

Source: The NHS Constitution & The Berwick Report: service user involvement & co-design

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Review of the “Celebrating Continuity, Rhetoric into Reality, Policy into Practice” Conference

I was delighted to be asked to chair this conference. I was so impressed by so many of the women who spoke about their experiences and why continuity of midwifery care matters to them, and by midwives talking about the practical details of delivering continuity models of care.

Bornstroppy's Blog

The 13th April brought us “Celebrating Continuity, Rhetoric into Reality, Policy into Practice” a conference created through a collaboration between AIMS, RCM, The Positive Birth Movement, Neighbourhood Midwives and a Birmingham NHS Trust.

So many exciting themes came out of the conference, together with discussions of common concerns and their solutions.  One quote from Beverley Turner underlined the whole of the day, “Women should be utterly supported throughout birth, and never just “winging it with a stranger”.  I would equally say that midwives should be able to support women through birth having clearly understood their needs and wishes via a relationship built through pregnancy, and not left just “winging it with a stranger”.

An interesting comment from Baroness Julia Cumberledge, following a question by Ruth Weston of Aquabirths, addressed the frustration of so many campaigners that CCGs were unaccountable, even to Monitor.  She announced that she was working in a team…

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Maternity Advice and Action Groups – A joy and inspiration #MSLCs


10 MSLCs in South London

Across South London there are 10 MSLCs (see below). Who knew that? No one, because no one made it their business to count or encourage collaboration, until now.

Multi-disciplinary maternity groups provide a great way for women’s views and priorities for change to be incorporated into strategic plans and the local maternity specifications. They involve current and recent services, more experienced ‘parent leaders’, maternity professionals ad commissioners – that’s an MSLC, or maternity services liaison committee, to use the full title.

In my role as patient and public involvement (PPI) lead for the maternity research group in South London[1], I have been gathering together leaders from these maternity advice and action groups (MSLCs) across South London. It’s been a joy and an inspiration. There is such a huge strategic potential out there!

In South London the established MLSCs are:

  • Epsom and St Helier
  • Kingston
  • St George’s
  • Croydon
  • King’s
  • Guy’s and St Thomas’s
  • Lewisham
  • Bromley
  • Bexley and
  • Greenwich.

These maternity forums provide advice to commissioners and providers of maternity services. They sometimes have different (more friendly, accessible) public-facing names, but essentially they are maternity services liaison committees (MSLCs), first set up following the Maternity Care in Action reports.

Some are doing really strategic work, well supported by their local clinical commissioning group (CCG), which has a responsibility for safety and quality assurance of services, and for ensuring service users are engaged and involved.  NHS England’s Transforming participation in health and care, says Commissioners should:

‘Listen and act upon patient and carer feedback at all stages of the commissioning cycle – from needs assessment to contract management.’

The National Maternity Review, recognised that:

‘Maternity Service Liaison Committees (MSLCs) provide a means of ensuring the needs of women and professionals are listened to and we saw how effective they could be when properly supported and led.’

Introducing the report, Julia Cumberlege  said:

‘I urge you to play your part in creating the maternity services you want for your family and your community. Voice your opinions, just as you have during this review, and challenge those providing the services to meet your expectations.’

In contrast, despite the best efforts of numerous MSLC leaders (chairs), there are CCGs in South London, and other areas, who give no financial or management and administrative support. Or they do not understand or fully respect the independence of the MSLC, and the role of the MSLC chair.

Perhaps this is not surprising, when the guidance on engaging with maternity service users and working collaboratively, using community engagement and co-design techniques, needs to be updated.

A new online resource

Fortunately, NHS England is working on updated online  guidance for MSLCs, with input from myself, Gillian Fletcher, and lots of service users who are active on local forums. The guidance is due for publication in the summer. Watch this space.

South London MSLC network

I’ve been really fortunate to be able to work with Laura James in South London. In other health circles, she would be called a ‘patient leader’. Starting, years ago now ,from her own experience, she has become highly influential in her local area, becoming chair of the Bromley MSLC.  Together we’ve set up a South London MSLCs Facebook group for all those involved with MSLCs across our patch.

There is a role for leaders. Laura’s been developing her knowledge andhoning her skills. She works directly with pregnant women and new parents both walking the patch in NHS clinics and wards and as an NCT practitioner, hearing concerns and positive stories week after week. You can read more about Laura’s insights into MSLCs on the MatExp website – home of lots of other great information – and more about  Laura’s work as reported in NCT’s journal Perspective. 

Inspiring things MSLCs/MSLC activists are doing:

  • Creating new infographics to inform and empower women attending clinics
  • Surveys of women’s experiences to give women a voice
  • Sharing stories written up in blogs
  • Co-designing birth centres/midwifery-led units
  • Organising conferences (see Michelle Quashie)
  • Identifying local priorities for change and working on them as a team in a SMART way

What you can do

If you care about making maternity services personalised, respectful, kind, responsive and geared to improving wellbeing and health for women and babies:

  • Network with other committed people and activists. Join MatExp Facebook group. Get involved with the Positive Birth Movement Join your MSLC or local maternity users’ group. If there isn’t one, talk to your local Consultant Midwife, Head of Midwifery, PALS service, Healthwatch &/or maternity commissioner. With social media (SoMe) it’s never been easier to set things up.
  • If you’re on an MSLC/maternity forum – join ‘MSLC leaders’ on Facebook and any local networks, such as the one we have for South London MSLCs and follow/use #MSLC on Twitter.

Find out more

Know about what local commissioners and services should be doing to support service user involvement

There are lots of MSLC resources and good practice case studies on the NCT website. (Scroll right down to the bottom and look in ‘Related documents’, too.)

Need help to get inspired or to get your MSLC moving? Take a look at Running your Maternity Services Liaison Committee: A practical guide from good practice to trouble shooting

[1] something called CLAHRC (pronounced  ‘clark’, and an abbreviation for Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care)

PPI in CLAHRC South London